The Thaksin factor in Thai politics
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The Thaksin factor in Thai politics

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Convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, centre, listens to a briefing by Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow, second from left, during his trip to Chiang Mai on Thursday. (Photo: Panumet Tanraksa)
Convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, centre, listens to a briefing by Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow, second from left, during his trip to Chiang Mai on Thursday. (Photo: Panumet Tanraksa)

Thai politics in the near term will likely be dominated by the fate of the two largest vote winners from the general election in May 2023, the Move Forward (MFP) and Pheu Thai parties. While the MFP is at risk of another dissolution, the same as its predecessor Future Forward Party suffered in 2020, Pheu Thai's political future appears to hinge on Thaksin Shinawatra and his return from exile in what is believed to be a deal that follows the assumption of the premiership under Srettha Thavisin, and for Thaksin, a royal pardon and early release on parole.

To many Thailand watchers, the decapitation of the MFP is a foregone conclusion. The Election Commission has followed up on the Constitutional Court's earlier ruling that the MFP had violated the 2017 constitution for trying to overthrow the democratic system with the King as head of state by pledging during the election campaign to amend the lese majeste law against royal insult.

After seeing off the MFP threat along with its reform agenda to modernise Thailand, the establishment will be watching Mr Thaksin closely. He is already being kept on a leash, figuratively speaking, by a lese majeste charge immediately after he was allowed parole to return to his home, preceded by the royal pardon that shaved his jail sentence on corruption convictions from eight years to one year. He spent just under six months of it in a comfortable unit at Police General Hospital.

Notwithstanding the political drama and conjecture surrounding Mr Thaksin's local movements and intentions, the issue is whether his return will be a net gain or an extra destabiliser for Thailand's political stability and effectiveness. Mr Thaksin is a consummate newsmaker, dealmaker, and mover and shaker who has intrigued Thailand watchers since he rose to power in 2001 and was overthrown in the 2006 coup. He is expected to wield political influence behind Pheu Thai. While his political clout will be undeniable, Mr Thaksin's hand in politics is weaker than it used to be on at least three counts. First, his Pheu Thai Party lost the last election narrowly to the MFP, an unprecedented defeat. Thaksin-aligned parties won elections resoundingly in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2011, and 2019. Losing to the MFP meant the electoral landscape shifted from Pheu Thai's once-invincible populist platform to the MFP's new paradigm of structural reforms.

Second, Mr Thaksin now presides over a constellation of power sources within his Shinawatra family, including his wife Potjaman Na Pombejra, daughter Paetongtarn, sister and ex-prime minister Yingluck, and Mr Srettha as the current head of government. The Shinawatra clan's power structure is more diffuse, less top-down and personalised. Third, the passage of time, with two coups and multiple judicial interventions over two decades, has eroded Mr Thaksin's political prowess. Although still influential, Thai politics has somewhat gone past Mr Thaksin as he turns 75 this year, as evident in Move Forward's and its leaders' meteoric rise.

Mr Srettha will likely be increasingly beholden to Mr Thaksin. The sitting prime minister has been under growing pressure to perform and deliver because, as a political newcomer, he lacks a patronage base within Pheu Thai. This means Mr Srettha will try all he can to come up with the goods, including low-hanging fruits like visa exemptions for Chinese and Russian tourists. He also has gone out of his way to drum up foreign investments in higher value chains, such as data centres. But, his success at attracting investments in higher value-added industries has been limited thus far.

Meanwhile, Mr Srettha and Pheu Thai's two-ocean "land bridge" strategy to logistically link the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea, bilateral free-trade agreements, "soft-power" projects, and the consumption boost around a 500-billion-baht digital wallet scheme have yet to find traction over the past six months. These structural policies are worth watching closely in the near term because they are necessary to unlock Thailand's growth constraints and keep the Thai economy from stagnation.

Thailand's projected growth this year has come down to 1.9% from more than 2.5%, partly owing to headwinds in the global economy. If the digital wallet plan gets off the ground by mid-2024, GDP growth may expand a notch upwards to 3%. Otherwise, there is a risk of structurally lower growth on the horizon, whereby the Thai economy will be stuck in labour-driven doldrums without structural breakthroughs to propel the economy up global value chains. Cheap labour from migrant workers in Cambodia and especially Myanmar reinforces this prospect.

A Thaksin gambit would likely require a cabinet reshuffle for Pheu Thai to reorganise its policymaking team. As the Senate's term expires in May, a rearranged cabinet line-up may well be in the offing, featuring Mr Thaksin's preferences. For the foreseeable future, Mr Srettha's premiership position appears secure as long as he stays away from bombshell scandals and disasters while being seen to work hard even if deliverables are in short supply. Because the 2017 constitution requires prime minister candidates of up to three per party to be designated before the poll, Mr Srettha's alternates under Pheu Thai would effectively be Ms Paetongtarn, as Chaikasem Nitisiri is elderly.

Putting Ms Paetongtarn in the coveted but hot seat of prime minister may still be too soon for the Shinawatra family. Other candidates, such as Pirapan Salirathavibhaga of the pro-military United Thai Nation party, simply do not have enough hands in the lower house to take over. Only a clear preference from the powers that be could put up Mr Pirapan to replace Mr Srettha and forestall Ms Paetongtarn. Others, such as Gen Prawit Wongsuwon of Palang Pracharath or Anutin Charnvirakul of the Bhumjaithai Party, do not appear to have what it takes to get to the top.

If Mr Thaksin gets more involved in politics behind the scenes or overtly, it is plausible that his policy experience, business acumen, world-class connections, and backroom dealmaking skills could bolster the Srettha government's pro-growth projects. But such a possibility depends on the "super deal" he struck with the established centres of power and whether they would allow him and Pheu Thai to take charge and move Thailand forward. While the establishment evidently wants power and control in politics, at issue will be whether it cares enough about economic growth and well-being of Thais.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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